Scholia Reviews ns 14 (2005) 6.
Stephen L. Dyson, The Roman Countryside. London : Duckworth, 2003. Pp. 128, incl. 4 maps. ISBN 0-7156- 3225-6. UK£10.99.
Cristina Rosillo López
University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland
When Edward Gibbon began to ask himself about the fall of the Roman Empire on October 1764, he was musing amid the ruins of the Capitol, in the heart of Rome. This question could have probably arisen in the ruins of any Roman city in the Roman Empire. However, the Roman Empire was not only a world of cities, but also a world of country villages and residences. Stephen Dyson's present book aims at an audience of non-specialized undergraduate and postgraduate students interested in archaeological remains of the Roman civilization in rural areas.
This book is part of a series (Duckworth Debates in Archaeology), which is designed to provide short introductions to current archaeological problems. Dyson's work fits perfectly into this context, since it offers an introduction to the study of the Roman countryside and landscape. Nowadays, landscape and environmental studies seem to be blooming and The Roman Countryside is in good company as the useful bibliography attests.
Dyson states his objectives early; to give a summary of current research and to settle it into a topographical framework (p. 7). A valuable point is made in the introduction, where the author acknowledges what this book does not discuss, especially the origins of the Roman countryside and the impact of the Roman army. Dyson then states the geographical area of his study: Italy, North Africa, the Iberian Peninsula, Britain, and France.
Chapter 1, 'The Roman Villa and the Roman Countryside' (pp. 13-35), provides some interesting reflections about the changing interpretations of the villa. This point is accurately described; Dyson engages himself in an analysis of how humanist and eighteenth-century scholars viewed Roman villae. Inspired by the letters of Cicero and the Younger Pliny, neo-Roman rural worlds arose from the Renaissance onwards, especially in Florence, Venice, and Rome; Palladio's works are the best example of this.[] The eighteenth century saw the rise of a new country gentry, who identified with the Roman Republic and Roman otium. Today, American scholars prefer to be inspired by Early Rome and figures such as Cincinnatus. Dyson moves on to explain the villa from an archaeological point of view, attesting its influence in social /economic structure, and its types (the villa maritima, suburbana, and rustica). The chapter concludes with a summary of historiography, which states the main authors (Weber, Rostovtzeff, Marx, Engels, and Finley) and points out the start of the use of archaeology in the study of the villa (mainly by Haverfield and Collingwood).
The next subject, an archaeological survey, is dealt with in two chapters, (Chapter 2, 'Expanding the Vision: A Survey and a New View of the Roman Countryside' (pp. 36-54), and Chapter 3: 'Aerial Photography, Landscape Archaeology and a Macrovision of the Roman Countryside' (pp. 55-73). Dyson explains the ropes of modern archaeology (especially the archaeology of settlement and environmental archaeology). Present-day surveys of the country look for settlement, residential units, and examples of rural exploitation, such as ceramic production or mining. The search is carried out by means of different techniques, such as aerial photography (the best way of looking for villae, roads, and traces of centuriation systems). Satellite photography and GIS (Geographic Information System) are also reviewed. These techniques aim at the study of the long-term relationship between man and land, with a strong environmental orientation and including the scientific diachronic studies of vegetation.
Chapter 4, 'Resistance and Continuity: An Indigenous Perspective on the Roman Countryside' (pp. 74-88), presents two different models of looking at Romanization. The colonial model sees no continuity with the pre-Roman past. Nowadays it has been replaced by the post-colonial approach, which emphasizes the fact that Rome was a minimalist empire, 'in which, if you paid your taxes and kept the peace, you could generally continue to follow your traditional ways' (p. 75). However, no model should be extreme: Dyson points out interactions, such as rural religion, mostly revealed through the study of Romano-Celtic temples or spring cults. Roman conquest was important, and it changed the countryside to some extent.
A last chapter, 'The End of the Roman Countryside' (pp. 89-102), reformulates Gibbon's question from a new point of view. Dyson shows that new studies highlight occupation beyond the fall of the Roman Empire and the persistence of high-status villa life. The pagan villas were not always abandoned, and many were transformed into Christian churches or monasteries. Finally, Dyson concludes that diversity is a key word in describing Roman landscape. Using an interesting metaphor, the author remarks that Roman influence could be likened to the commercial imperialism of the United States: 'The Romans produced a variety of lifestyle options with appeal for all, whether it was a villa with bath, mosaic, and wall-paintings or a single African Red Slip bowl to display beside the traditional hearth. Each such item produced changes big and small' (p. 106). These changes created a new society in which pre-Roman and Roman ways blended.
The goal of the series is achieved in Dyson's work. The book provides a clear survey of current trends in archaeology and mentions most of the latest findings. Dyson does not only focus on villae, but also studies humbler abodes, which are mostly neglected. As far as methodology is concerned, it could have been interesting to analyse the relationship between archaeological and literary sources more deeply. Most students of ancient history or archaeology face that problem, and I would have hoped that the book would have taken this matter more seriously. However, Dyson has to condense much information into one hundred and six pages, and does so in a highly readable way. I find the book very convincing and would without doubt recommend it as handbook or introductory book to any student or non-specialist on archaeological studies of the Roman countryside.
[] On Andrea Palladio, the Renaissance architect, cf. P. Holberton, Palladio's Villas: Life in the Renaissance Countryside (London 1990); B. Boucher, Andrea Palladio: The Architect in his Time (New York 1994); D. Lewis, The Drawings of Andrea Palladio (New Orleans 2000). Eighteen of his villas survive. His book, I Quattro Libri dell' Architettura (The Four Books of Architecture) was very influential in his lifetime. With his sons, he even contributed to a translation of Caesar's commentaries, besides providing illustrations for an annotated edition of Vitruvius's treatises.